Tuning Into Austin

Can Madison—should Madison—be more like the central Texas city of music, tech and opportunity it’s so often compared to?

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OPPORTUNITY MADISON

Like Austin, Madison has a major university and a strong technical college system. We have left-leaning local citizens playing host to a right-leaning state Capitol. We have water. More than Austin, in fact.

But the Madison versus Austin game can be tricky. For starters, Austin is adding about one hundred fifty residents per day. That’s the equivalent of adding almost two Fitchburgs or seven Mononas each year. There’s also Austin’s more favorable climate. And the lack of a personal income tax. And the BBQ. Hmm. I’m comforted knowing that we do beat them in the battle of the beer; try as I did, I never found an Austin craft brew worth its weight in calories.

Can Madison use Austin’s secret sauce recipe to whip up our own version of economic prosperity?

Maybe.

Madison has just deployed its own version of Opportunity Austin. It’s called MadREP (short for Madison Region Economic Partnership) and is designed to pool resources across our eight-county region—just as Austin did across its five-county region—to coordinate business expansion and retention activities, avoid duplication of services and territorial squabbles, and expand and showcase business opportunities by giving companies more choices in where to locate and grow. In other words: amplify our strengths, mitigate our weaknesses, pool and leverage resources.

Had MadREP been around in 2005, when Epic was deciding whether to move its headquarters from Madison to Verona, maybe the software company’s eventual and fateful pick wouldn’t have felt like such a ringing unendorsement to Madisonians.

In May MadREP brought Gary Farmer, the private sector cheerleader of Austin’s economic renaissance who canceled his haircut to help me understand Austin’s success, to the Marrott in Middleton (thinking regionally, people!) to “get everybody all lathered up,” as he describes it, about the Madison region’s own opportunity to be a university town, a capital city and a prolific creator of private-sector jobs.

I asked him whether the economy needs to get worse in Madison before it can get better, like Austin’s did ten years ago when even the chamber went belly up. I asked him, too, whether there’s something so special, so weird, about Austin that its success can’t possibly be emulated, even with an economic development strategy conceived by the same consultant.

“You don’t have to be on the doorstep of despair to say, ‘Oh, we’d better do something,’” says Farmer. “It’s about creating an environment where businesses can prosper, creating an environment where jobs can be created organically and inorganically. It’s about providing those jobs to families. It’s about creating return for taxpayers.”

After every conversation I had in Austin, and from everything I absorbed, I came home wondering why our own deep talent pool isn’t being sufficiently tapped to fuel Madison’s economy—at least not yet.

“Austin has two things that Madison doesn’t,” says Madison-based economist Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting and author of this magazine’s  Next column. “First, Austin’s business and city government have a shared vision of economic development. They work together and trust each other. We don’t have that here yet.” Ryan adds that Madison’s big bets on biotech and life sciences require long rounds of FDA approvals that high tech companies do not.

While I was in Austin, I asked Forrest, the SXSW wunderkind, what he knew about Madison. “Not much,” he said. “Mad City, the Badgers…” Ouch. That’s it? Struck by wounded pride and nervous compulsion, I rattled off some of the good stuff I thought he should know about.

“For us, I think the food is very interesting,” I began. “We have some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world; Organic Valley Co-op; the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, a vibrant farm-to-table movement … And we’re a big biking city, we have Ironman.” I laid it on as thick as I could. But next to Austin’s track record, it seemed so … underwhelming.

Later, when I sat down to write this story, I wondered what had become of Smart Studios, which closed without fanfare in 2010. It had been situated in what’s now called the Capitol East District urban revitalization corridor that stretches the length of East Wash from Blair Street to the Yahara River. shopbop and University Research Park East are among its most notable inhabitants, as well as Old Sugar Distillery, business incubators, the Brink Lounge/Brass Ring/High Noon Saloon complex, and the chamber of commerce/convention & visitors bureau/MadREP. Two new apartment and condominium projects and a Metcalfe’s Market are in the works, and MadREP is working with the hackerspace Sector67 on finding a larger building to serve as an accelerator space prototype for start-ups.

MadREP also plans to cultivate Sector67-style spaces in communities across the region. Of course, this being Madison, the group faces two hurdles: getting Madison stakeholders to work together and convincing the regional economic development community that “Madison-centric” doesn’t mean “Madison-only.” Could it be that we’re more comfortable with contention than consensus?

Farmer told me he thinks our plan can produce positive returns, as long as we execute it, and as long as “the business community is dedicated to the proposition of being better.” I hope we have enough Gary Farmers out there willing to walk the walk. And that government and education will plug in, listen to Austin’s soundtrack and then get to work on recording Madison’s new chorus—as a clan.

A quick web search turns up a story about Smart Studios. Current plans call for it to be a restaurant/lounge that will feature some of the old building and studio history. A foodie future, with a sprinkling of authentic nostalgia, for the bygone music concern. Hey, that might just be weird enough to work. 

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. 

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